Giant Steps - by Jerome Kern

July 17, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

John Coltrane died fifty years ago today. (The rest of this post is a bit technical. My apologies.)

The “Giant Steps” album of 1959 was a turning point in jazz. The title tune represented a new idea in chord sequences.  “What are those chords, man?” everyone seemed to be asking.  “B D G Bb Eb - how do you play through that?” Even the great Tommy Flanagan, the pianist on the “Giant Steps” date, seems to be struggling with the changes.

As Wikipedia says, “The ‘Giant Steps’ cycle is the culmination of Coltrane's theories applied to a completely new chord progression.”

Instead of the usual progression (C, Am7, Dm7, G7) and its small variations, “Giant Steps” is based on the augmented triad B, G, Eb, with passing chords in between. Wikipedia charts the usual ii-V-I sequence against the Coltrane version.

That progression soon became part of the jazz vocabulary.

Of course, nothing is totally new. One night as I was sitting at the bar at Bradley’s, the guy I was talking to said, “You know, the ‘Giant Steps’ are in the verse to ‘Till the Clouds Roll By.’” That song was written by Jerome Kern (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse) in 1917 – the earliest days of the golden age of the American popular song.  I was skeptical. Coltrane’s revolutionary changes. Eventually I found the sheet music, and there they were.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Here’s the classic recording, with Coltrane’s solo transcribed and animated.

Bedtime – Construct or Cruelty

July 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

One summer evening when I was a teenager, I drove with Don Bane, a guitar player, from our WASP suburb of Pittsburgh to the projects in the Hill District. Don was the only other kid in Mt. Lebanon High who wanted to play jazz. We could often find a bass player and drummer to jam with, but they weren’t really into jazz. Don was, it was the only thing he was interested in, and he would find connections outside our small world. That’s how we wound up in the public housing apartment of a Black kid our age, a bass player named Mickey Bass.*

It was probably about 9p.m., maybe later, when we got there, and as Don and I walked to Mickey’s building, I was astonished to see so many kids still running around, playing  in the courtyard – kids as young as six or seven. Wasn’t it way past their bedtime?

I had led a sheltered life.

What reminded me of this moment was a piece in the FiveThirtyEight section “Science Question From a Toddler” (here).The questions are from kids; the answers are for grown-ups. 

“Why is it bedtime if it’s still light outside?” asked a 5-year old.

The headline phrase “social construct” is what drew me to read the piece, but Maggie Koerth-Baker’s answer rambles through biology, circadian rhythms,“bedtime resistance behaviors,” daylight and darkness, etc. but never uses the term “social construction.” The closest she gets is this:

In 2005, Jenni published a paper in the Journal of Sleep Research critiquing an earlier paper that tried to . . . define childhood insomnia as occurring when a 7-year-old can’t fall asleep by 8:45 p.m. In his critique, Jenni pointed out that this definition ignored the fact that average bedtimes varied widely from country to country. For instance, out of six countries whose data Jenni reviewed, three had bedtime norms that would make a perfectly average 7-year-old a candidate for medication.

If you Google “What bedtime,” it auto-completes to discussions of age-appropriate times (plus a couple of other frequently asked questions not relevant here).

These bedtimes are social norms, of course, and they vary not just from culture to culture but from family to family. Even within families bedtime norms are often the subject of negotiation. Because “bedtime” involves just a few people in an informal setting, it does not become institutionalized like other time norms like university schedules,  (e.g., MW 10:00 - 11:15). I don’t have my copy of The Social Construction of Reality at hand, but I think that Berger and Luckman use “lunchtime” as an example of how a mere agreement between two people – let’s meet for lunch at 1:00 – can become a stone-like reality as it intersects with more and more people and activities. 

What most of these discussion of bedtime miss is not that it is socially constructed and therefore subject to variation but that it is constructed at all. We just assume that every society or family has it. It’s the way we used to think about religion. Beliefs and practices may differ, but everybody has a religion except for a tiny handful of atheists, and they’re weird and don’t really count.

But what if an entire society has not constructed “bedtime”?  What if a culture sees bedtime not as a comforting and necessary construct but as something alien to their basic values?

Tim Parks, an Englishman married to an Italian and living in Verona, came to this realization when he attended a get-together for apartment owners in his condo building. The host’s four-year old son is running through the apartment, crashing into lamps, and raiding the refrigerator. Someone asks Parks about his own son, age two and a half.

    When I reply that Michele is in bed, others at the table show a mixture of awe and concern.
    “You have left him alone in bed at only two and a half?”
    I point out that it’s late for a little boy, and I am just about to go on to say that his bedtime is seven o’clock, when I remember that there is no word or expression to translate “bedtime” into Italian. [emphasis added]

Parks makes his living as a translator. If there were an Italian word for “bedtime,” he would know it. This absence of the word isn’t a failure of the Italian language; instead, it suggests a completely different set of ideas about children. Parks explains:

There is something coercive about the notion of a bedtime. It suggests that there comes a moment when parents actually force their little children to go to bed and will not take no for an answer, something unthinkable in these more indulgent climes. In explanation, I have to say that Michele “habitually goes to bed at seven o’clock,” which gives quite a different impression, and Francesca in particular marvels at what a wonderful little boy my Michele must be, hurrying off to his bed so early, not realizing that I had to pin the chap down for half an hour and more while I sang to him and told stories and said that Mummy would be back very soon, until finally he got more bored than I was and tired of all the crying he’d done and fell asleep. On more than one occasion I have heard such behavior described by Italians as cruelty. [from An Italian Education, 1995]
There may have been a bedtime for Bonzo, but not for Renzo

* Mickey Bass went on to become a professional jazz bassist.  In the early 1970s, he was with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (maybe the Pittsburgh connection had something to with it). He has played with Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, and other jazz greats.

Flashback Friday — Plus Ça Change

July 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

 A new cohort of French 18-year olds took the baccalauréat last month, but the names at the top and bottom of the distribution are pretty much the same as last year.

In France, kids’ names are a pretty good indicator of how well they’ll do on le bac – the test that determines how good a university they can attend. As I blogged a year ago:

A little data ’bout Jacques and Diane
Two French kids taking the college entrance exam.
Over in France it’s known as
le bac
Diane often gets
très bien, not so much Jacques.

The baccalauréat exam taken by French students at the end of high school serves as qualification for university admissions and scholarships and for certain jobs. Those who pass at the highest level get très bien. The other levels are bièn, assez bièn, pass, and not pass. For some reason, the government publishes the results for each prénom. This year, 89 students named Jacques took the exam. Of these, 75 passed, but only 11 of them at the très bien level.

That was then. It’s also now. One of sociology’s crucial insights is that rates are remarkably stable even though the individuals who make up those rates change from year to year. The Dianes who took the bac in 2017 are not the Dianes who took it the year before, but their rate of très bien was again over 20%.  And as ever, the kids with Anglo names – Kevin, Jordan, Dylan, Anthony, Samantha, Melissa, Cindy, et al. – cluster at the low end. Less than one in twenty managed a très bien.

Baptiste Coulmont (here) created this graph of the 2017 results.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

As in previous years, the highest scoring names are female. Of the fourteen names with more than 20% among the très bien, Joseph is the only male.

The chart shows only the more popular names. For more on some of the rarer names – Guillemette, Quitterie, and others – see last year’s post (here).

UPDATE: July 9. M. Coulmont now has an interactive chart (here) with data for the years since 2012. 

Peter Berger — 1929 - 2017

June 30, 2017 
Posted by Jay Livingston

Flashback Friday

Peter Berger died earlier this week. The Times obit is here. His field was religion, but his two most widely read books were Invitation to Sociology (1963), which you can probably still find on the intro syllabus at some schools, and The Social Construction of Reality, co-written with Thomas Luckman (1966). The book quickly became a staple in theory courses, but soon the phrase and concept “social construction” broke through and crossed over into general use. Here is the Googl nGram chart of its appearance in books.

Five years ago, I blogged about Berger’s work for the tobacco industry and his more recent efforts on behalf of the soft-drink industry. That blog post is what I am flashing back to below. At about the same time, Andrew Gelman, who knew well of Berger’s work as a shill for Big Cig, also had this to say (here):

But what impresses me is that Berger is doing regular blogging at the age of 84, writing a long essay each week. That’s really amazing to me. Some of the blogging is a bit suspect, for example the bit where he claims that he personally could convert gays to heterosexual orientation (“A few stubborn individuals may resist the Berger conversion program. The majority will succumb”)—but, really, you gotta admire that he’s doing this. I hope I’m that active when (if) I reach my mid-80s. (As a nonsmoker, I should have a pretty good chance of reaching that point.)

July 26, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociologist Peter Berger is hauling out the strategy he used when he hired himself out to Big Tobacco.  His role then in Tobacco’s fight against regulation and other anti-smoking measures wasn’t to defend smoking as virtuous or healthful.  Instead, he was paid to discredit anti-smoking sentiment and organizations.  Berger’s tactic for this purpose was basically name calling combined with accusations that even if true were irrelevant.

This time, in a longish (2400 word) article at The American Interest , he’s speaking up for the people who bring us sugar water.  Or to be scrupulously accurate, he’s trying to discredit the anti-obesity, anti-diabetes forces trying reduce the amount of the stuff that people drink.

As I said, it’s a page from the same playbook he used when he was working for the folks who bring us cigarettes. He refers to the “vehement passion” of the anti-smoking and anti-obesity campaigns, and he exaggerates their goals (while showing off his erudition):
I suggested that it was in an age-old tradition of the quest of immortality, first described in the ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic.
He also accuses them or their supporters of venal motives.
Successful morally inspired movements typically ally themselves with powerful groups motivated by very hard material interests.
This from someone who was being paid by a multi-billion dollar industry to further their material interests. This irony is apparently lost on Berger, who, interestingly, does not even hint that he got penny from Tobacco. Maybe he forgot.

In going after the movement to improve public health, his number one target is Mayor Bloomberg and the proposed ban on the sale of huge-sized sugar-water drinks in theaters, restaurants, and other public places. 

Again, Berger is not arguing that obesity is good for you.  Instead, he dusts off the old “immortality” barb – equating a desire to reduce diabetes and other illnesses with the vain and impossible goal of immortality. Berger does not tell us how he managed to discover this immortality fantasy in the minds of others, a deep motivation the anti-obesity people are themselves are unaware of. He just makes it the title of his article  (“Mayor Bloomberg and the Quest of Immortality”) and asserts it a few times.  We have to take it on faith.

Berger makes the same arguments he used against anti-smoking campaigns:
  • The anti-obesity forces will be moralistic (Berger refers to them with religion-based words like crusaders, litany, preaching).  
  • They are elitist. Not only do they see their own lifestyle choices as virtuous, but they try to impose these on the working class. 
  • They ally themselves with people whose material interests are served by anti-obesity or with (shudder) bureaucrats. 
  • They are European, un-American.
I cannot say whether Bloomberg’s quasi-European lifestyle has anything to do with his idea of New York City as a quasi-European welfare state.*
Then there is the “slippery slope” argument – the scare tactic of exaggeration and false equivalency.
There is also an equivalent of the Saudi Arabian police force dedicated to “the promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice”—an army of therapists, coaches, educators, advice columnists, dieticians, and other moral entrepreneurs. To date (still) they mainly rely on persuasion rather than coercion. Wait a little. [Emphasis by Berger.]
Yes, you read that correctly.  If you can’t buy a 30-oz. cup of sugar-water and instead have to buy two 15-ounce cups, the Saudi police are just around the corner. 

I wonder what Berger and libertarians in general were saying back when the good-health forces were trying to get lead removed from gasoline and paint.  Could you pretty much do a find-and-replace for the current article, just as that article is a find-and-replace version of his tobacco work?**

UPDATE:  Baptiste Coulmont tweets a link to a 2006 article (here) by a French sociologist, Robert Castel, which uncannily echoes Berger’s arguments.  Castel uses the same vocabulary of religion in mocking the anti-smokers, and he attributes to them the same desire for immortality.
Le fumeur d’hier comme le fumeur d’aujourd’hui transgresse le seul sacré que nous soyons désormais capables de reconnaître, le culte du corps, de sa santé, de sa longévité, sur lequel s’est finalement rabattu le désir d’éternité[emphasis added]
He likens anti-smoking policies to Islamic authoritarianism:
ce mélange d’autoritarisme bien-pensant, de suffisance pseudo-savante et de bonne conscience sécuritaire qui caractérise souvent les ayatollahs de la santé. [emphasis added]
And he sees the same slippery slope.
L’interdit du tabac n’est pas la dernière des prohibitions que l’on nous prépare.
The major difference from Berger is that, as far as I know, Castel was not being paid by Gauloises.

*By the way, if you’re looking for an example of paralipsis or apophasis, look no further than that sentence.

** For more on Berger and Tobacco, see Aaron Swartz’s article (here).  (HT: Andrew Gelman).  And yes, this is the same Peter Berger that sociologists of a certain age may remember as the author of that staple of Soc 101, Invitation to Sociology, and also as co-author of The Social Construction of Reality.

Ceci n’est pas trash-talking

June 29, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The reference in the title is to this canvas by René Magritte.

There must be a word for this – the statement that is self-contradictory – but what is it? (Of course you could argue that Magritte is technically correct. It’s not a pipe; it’s a picture of a pipe.)

Paralipsis and apophasis come close – emphasizing something by saying you’re not emphasizing. In politics, for example: “I’m not even going to mention the rumors that my opponent has deep ties to the Russian Mafia and hires prostitutes to pee on him.”

I’m thinking of something a shade more subtle – the statement or image that is itself the opposite of what it claims to be.  It came to mind a couple days ago when a right-winger I know who likes to bait me sent an e-mail with this.

why should anyone on our side want Obama to succeed in “transforming” America into a cesspool of political correctness, creeping socialism, leftist thugs on campus, and appeasement of Islamic extremism?). 

By the way, are you down with programs to “re-educate” Americans who don’t see things your way? That’s what the left wants — clearly and openly. So resistance to all that brainwashing was the mission of Republicans under Obama, true. But I don’t remember any assassination fantasies.

Current climate different: Not only no hope for reconciliation, but rumblings of violence. Already one Republican Congressmen nearly assassinated. More politically motivated violence to come, no doubt. (Madonna fantasy “blow up the white house” / Depp actor assassination fantasy / Kathy Griffin beheaded Trump imagery / Shakespeare in the Park Trump vicarious assassination to hoots of delight, etc. — you have great friends, Jay.)

I said that I could do a similar caricature of conservatives, but why bother? It’s just trash talk. The point is to taunt rather than to discuss. Maybe on the basketball court trash-talking enhances the game (my correspondent does have a beautiful jump shot), but it doesn’t do much for understanding, and I just wasn’t interested in talking trash right now.

He wrote back. “Not trash-talking - just reality, unpleasant as it is.”  It’s a perfect example of the thing I’m trying to find the word for – trash-talking by saying that not you’re not trash-talking.

The same day, an even better example from Page Six showed up in my Twitter feed.

Fatherhood — Breadwinners and Losers

June 26, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here is my favorite PSA of all time.

If there were an award for best performance in a 30-second public service ad, this actor should have won. He shows not a flicker of irony – no wink, no smile, no deliberate misstep – nothing to show the “role distance” that you might expect of a father chanting cheers with his daughter.

The ad also epitomizes the change in the role of father to include more social-emotional involvement with children. Through the first part of the 20th century, being a “good father” required little more than providing for the family.  Compare the PSA with this “ad” for a different style of father, written by a man who grew up in the 1920s and 30s.

My father never did any of the things that, according to the “parenting” wisdom of today, are supposed to be so important. I don’t recall him ever hugging me, or kissing me, or telling me that he loved me. . . I don’t recall ever having an extended conversation with him. . .  He was, and remains in memory, a version of the good father. [from “Life Without Father” by Irving Kristol, (Wall Street Journal, 1994)]

Things began to change after World War II. Although breadwinner remained central to the role of father, post-War America saw a cultural shift that added a new element  – greater involvement with children. Family sitcoms of 1950 and 60s – shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver” – served as both instruction and justification for this version of fatherhood.

Like many cultural changes, the new fatherhood spread downward through the class system. As more wives at all levels entered the paid labor force, fathers had to share more of the household duties, including parenting,

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)
The chart from Pew shows a big change from 1965 to 2015. The average number of hours that moms spent at work nearly tripled, and the hours they spent on housework were cut in half. But also nearly tripling was the time dads spent in child care.

We even got a new word to denote this gender-neutral focus on the child’s emotional and social development – parenting.

(Google nGrams showing the frequency of the word “parenting” in American books.)

But what about father-child relations among the poor. In a recent post (here), I cited Tally’s Corner, Elliot Liebow’s study of Black streetcorner men in 1963-64.  The jobs these men could get were sporadic and did not pay enough to allow a man to support a family. This failure not only led men to leave their marriages, it also freighted the father-child relationship with ambivalence. “To soften this failure, and to lessen the damage to his public and self-esteem, he pushes the children away from him.”

That was then. Today’s counterparts of these men, also left behind by a changing labor market, have seized on the social component of the father role. As Kathryn Edin and Timothy Jon Nelson say in their 2013 study Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, “the new-father role emerged just in the nick of time to offer an alternative way to engage with their progeny.”

Time spent with children, whether skillfully fashioning a daughter’s hair or teaching one’s son to pee in the bushes, is viewed as priceless and a treasure any man would naturally want to claim. The opportunity to express love and have rich conversations with children is a gift — not just to the children but for the fathers as well. These are the moments, fathers say, that truly make life worth living. . .
It is almost as if engaging in the softer “relational aspects” of the role is a must-have for men trying to forge meaning and identity in an economic age that has left the unskilled worker behind. Relating to children — not hanging on the corner with peers — is the vital ingredient that adds zest to life.  And even in these challenging neighborhood environments, visiting family is what fathers often want to do with their free time.
The troubling part of the Edin-Nelson account is that for the men in their study, the relational aspect of fatherhood is not just a complement to being the breadwinner. It has become a replacement.

a seismic shift has occurred in lower-skilled men’s ability and willingness to shoulder the traditional breadwinning responsibilities of the family. According to our story, at the bottom end of the skills distribution we see not just a withdrawal but a headlong retreat — it is nearly a dead run — from the breadwinner role.

Word Association: I say Trump. . .?

June 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Quinnipiac poll done last month had an item that I hadn’t seen before. The poll had the usual Favorable/Unfavorable  questions about Trump, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, and others. (Trump’s 35% Favorable / 58% Unfavorable was best in show.) But Quinnipiac then, in Item #9, asked for more specific reactions.
9. What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump? (Numbers are not percentages. Figures show the number of times each response was given. This table reports only words that were mentioned at least five times.)
Here the results. I have sorted them into Favorable and Unfavorable. (Some respondents may have used “president” as a neutral term. After all, even those who think unfavorably of Trump acknowledge that he is in fact the president, and that he is a rich businessman. But I’m going to assume that these all carry positive valences.)

(Click on the chart for a clearer view.)

The sheer numbers – 343 negative to 184 positive – reflect Trump’s unpopularity, of course. But what about the variety? Is this peculiar to Trump? Does he offer so many things to dislike? Or do we just generally have a richer vocabulary of negative adjectives? Is it harder to come up with different ways that we like someone?

Missing Fathers, Missing Jobs

June 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Millions of poor children and teenagers grow up without their biological father.”

Thus David Brooks begins a recent column. As usual, Brooks pays close attention to culture, psychology, and the dynamics of relationships while pretty much ignoring structure and economics.
Brooks is correct in saying that the reasons men leave have more to do with the man-woman relationship than with the father-child relationship. Since this happens far more frequently among the poor, most people would probably focus on financial factors – lack of income, lack of jobs, lack of education.  Instead, Brooks focuses on the young man’s ideas.

Not David Brooks.

The fathers often retain a traditional and idealistic “Leave It to Beaver” view of marriage. They dream of the perfect soul mate. They know this woman isn’t it, so they are still looking.

But while the young father is “ stuck in a formless romantic anarchy,” the mother must necessarily be more realistic. The collision dooms the relationship.

Buried in the rigors of motherhood, the women, meanwhile, take a very practical view of what they need in a man: Will this guy provide the financial stability I need, and if not, can I trade up to someone who will?

The father begins to perceive the mother as bossy, just another authority figure to be skirted. Run-ins with drugs, the law and other women begin to make him look even more disreputable in her eyes.

Brooks is working from Doing the Best I Can : Fatherhood in the Inner City (2013), by Kathryn Edin and Timothy Jon Nelson, a study of men in Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. The authors note the dismal job market the men face. “By the 1970s, when the new-father ideology first came on the scene, the job prospects of those with no credentials beyond a high school diploma, including in Philadelphia and Camden, were already in free fall.”

Fifty years ago, Elliot Liebow surveyed this same territory – Black streetcorner men in Washington, DC – in Tally’s Corner.  Liebow saw that the central problem in marriages was the man’s inability to, as Brooks says, “provide financial stability.” But unlike Brooks, Liebow looked outward at the labor market for the reasons. The basic fact underyling the men’s lives – as husbands, fathers, friends, and lovers – was that the kinds of jobs that these men could get did not pay enough to allow a man to support a family.

Marriage is an occasion of failure. To stay married is to live with your failure, to be confronted by it day in and day out. It is to live in a world whose standards of manliness are forever beyond one's reach. where one is continuously tested and challenged and continually found wanting.

Or as Herb Gans, at around the same time, put it in his “Reflections on the Moynihan Report”

The Negro man . . .cannot provide  the economic support that. is a principal male function in American society. As a result, the woman becomes the head of the famly, and the man a marginal appendage who deserts or is rejected by his wife.

While work and income remain central to the problem of absentee fathers, other things may have changed. The man on Tally’s Corner in 1963 was, typically, ambivalent about his children, for the child, like the wife, was a reminder of his failure to live up to the role of breadwinner. The man moving in with someone else’s children was more likely to be affectionate towards them than towards his own biological children.

To soften this failure, and to lessen the damage to his public and self-esteem, he pushes the children away from him saying, in effect, “I’m not even trying to be your father so now I can't be blamed for failing to accomplish what rm not trying to do.”

According to Edin and Nelson, a cultural shift at all levels of US society has allowed men to have a different reaction to their children. I hope to take up in a later post.

False Equivalencies and the Distortion of History

June 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you want a good example of false equivalency, look no further than Ross Douthat’s column today (here).

The turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s generated segregationist terrorism on the right and a revolutionary underground on the left, but it did not produce much partisan terrorism, violence inspired simply by fear and hatred of the opposition party.

From the balancing of right and left in this sentence, you would never know that level of segregationist violence was several orders of magnitude greater than what the “revolutionary underground” committed. 

Douthat’s claim that segregationist terrorism was not “partisan” is also a bit of a stretch. Douthat’s main point is that until last week’s “attempted massacre of Republicans on a baseball field,” assassinations in the US have not been partisan. The killers may have acted on a political ideology, but they were not affiliated with a party or even a real movement. 

That may be true of a handful of assassinations and attempts directed at prominent elected officials – JFK, Reagan, RFK, and others. The shooters were lone wolves, and saw their targets as individuals rather than as representatives of a political party .

But much political violence, including killings, has been more organized and systematic. In the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the people who were doing the beating were often agents of the government. Those who committed murder, torture, arson, and other forms of terrorism knew that law enforcement was on their side and would do little to prevent or punish them. And their terrorism had a clear political purpose: to preserve White supremacy.

Douthat says that segregationist terror was not “inspired by fear and hatred of the opposition party.” This statement is true only in the very technical sense that there was no opposition party. The  fear and hatred were directed at people who were trying to create an anti-segregationist party or to eventually bend one of the major parties away from White supremacy policies.

The killers of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Viola Liuzzo, and other people who were working for civil rights; the people who burned churches; the sheriffs, the Klansmen, and the others – they were part of a political establishment, some as officials, others as constituents. If Douthat thinks that they are barely worth remembering, he is distorting history. If he thinks that they were were political oddballs and isolates on the order of Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley, and Squeaky Fromme, he is drawing an egregiously false equivalency.

Did Comey Infer Or Did He Imply?

June 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Language prescriptivists – the people who tell us when our choice of words is wrong – are always on the losing side historically. Words come to mean what people use them to mean regardless (or irregardless) of what experts say. But sometimes the fuddy-duddies have a point.

Infer/Imply. These words often appear on lists of terms that people misuse. To imply is to suggest something indirectly. To infer is to draw a conclusion from the available information. Most of the time, you can figure out from context what the speaker or writer really meant. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two words can be important.

Look at the this sentence in a story today at the Independent Journal Review, a right-leaning news site, (here):

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
(The link at “heavily inferred” does not go to a language Website.)

At first, I thought that Comey, using his powers of deduction and the information available at the FBI, had concluded that the special counsel was conducting an obstruction investigation. But no, what the writer meant, I think, was that Comey had implied that the special counsel was investigating possible obstruction of justice. 

The distinction is relevant. As written, the sentence means that Comey didn’t know and was just guessing. But if the writer meant imply rather than infer, it means Comey already knew and was dropping a big hint to the committee and to the world. That’s especially important because the main Republican talking point is that there is no case for obstruction.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, maybe someone will explain why imply doesn’t rhyme with simply.

This Is Your Deaprtment of Justice On Drugs

June 14, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Attorney General Jeff Sessions showed us yesterday in his Senate testimony, he is a master of misdirection. Session the indignantly defended his honor, vigorously denying things that nobody had accused him of. As for specifics, he mostly refused to answer.

Sessions is using a similar strategy in his letter to Congress  (written on May 1 but made public two days ago) urging Congress to let him punish states that allow medical marijuana.

I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.

A third grader could see the flaw in this argument.
  • We’re in the midst of a drug epidemic.
  • Marijuana is a drug
  • Therefore marijuana is part of the epidemic.
Can a politician still get away with tossing anything he doesn’t like into the catch-all bin labeled “drugs”? As most people who are not the Attorney General know, the epidemic consists mostly of opiods, not weed. If there is any connection between medical marijuana and opioid death and addiction, that connection is negative. States that allow medical marijuana have lower rates of opioid problems.

Medical marijuana legalization was associated with 23% (p = 0.008) and 13% (p = 0.025) reductions in hospitalizations related to opioid dependence or abuse and OPR overdose, respectively. [From the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependency, April 1, 2017 (behind a paywall here)]

Earlier articles from JAMA and NBER reached similar conclusions.  (See this WaPo article for summaries and links.).   

Research on individuals reaches the same conclusion as state-level data.

    •  Cannabis use was associated with 64% lower opioid use in patients with chronic pain.
    •  Cannabis use was associated with better quality of life in patients with chronic pain.
    •  Cannabis use was associated with fewer medication side effects and medications used. [From an article in the Journal of Pain, 2016 (here).]

None of these findings should be surprising. We have long known that marijuana is effective for people who are in pain, and it is far safer than opioids. If people can treat their pain with weed rather than heroin, fentanyl, etc., they’ll be less likely to wind up addicted or dead. If the government makes it harder to get medical marijuana, opioid problems will likely increase.

Scientific American (here) today presents similar evidence today, as did the journal Science (here)  year ago). Of course, scientific Americans and science have little influence in the Trump administration. To head the White House commission on drug addiction Trump appointed Chris Christie, a man whose views of marijuana are similarly without basis in fact. (See this earlier post.)

Getting Inequality Wrong

June 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Imagine that you earn $125,00 a year; your spouse earns $75,000. Not so hard to imagine. I probably know a lot of couples in this range. Their $200,000 income puts you in the top fifth of US households.

Who do you feel closer to – socially and economically: the family whose income is $60,000 or the family bringing home $1.4 million? The $60,000 is  the average household incomes for those in the middle of the distribution. The $1.4 million is the average of the 1%.

If you thought you were closer to the average American, you’re kidding yourself. So says Richard Reeves in a New York Times article that, to judge from my Twitter and Facebook feeds, has been getting a lot of attention. Your perception, says Reeves, isn’t just misguided, it’s “dangerously self-serving.”

The rhetoric of “We are the 99 percent” has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy six-figure incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.

From the end of World War II until about 1980 income inequality in the US had been narrowing. Since then, overall inequality has been increasing. In support of this idea that it’s the top fifth and not just the 1% whose incomes are responsible, Reeves looks at income changes since 1979.

the upper middle class is solidifying. This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution, with an average annual household income of $200,000, has been separating from the 80 percent below. Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion-plus increase in pretax income since 1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.

It’s not surprising that the 1% got less than half the increase, but they got a lot more than 1%. Their incomes grew far more rapidly than did incomes of the rest of the top fifth.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

The above graph comes from a Brookings publication co-written by the same Richard Reeves. The graph certainly makes it look as though the real separation is between the 1% and the rest of US households. Yes, the top fifth is getting richer – more so than the middle-income households. But the differences can still be shown on the same graph. By contrast, the line for the top 1% is so far away from the others that in order to show the increase of the 81st to 99th, Reeves has to remove the 1% from the graph.

Now we can see that yes, the incomes of the rest of the top fifth increased  - from about $120,000 to nearly $190,000. But the average income for the 1% went from about half a million to over $1,400,000. Here’s a graph of those percentage increases – 192% (i.e., nearly triple) for the 1%, 70% (less than double) for the rest of the top fifth.

It’s misleading to talk about “the upper fifth” as though those at the 85th percentile had a lot in common with the 1%, even within the 1%, the differences are striking. In a 2013 blog post (here), Dan Hirschman converted Piketty-Saez data to show increases for different sectors of the top 10%, Most of us would consider all of these folks to be rich, but some got more richer than others.


Here is a clearer breakdown of incomes in the top fifth in 2016.

(HT: Philp Cohen)

What’s happened since the 1980s, is that the top 0.01% have pulled away. They have become the super-rich. In 1970, if you were in the 1% pulling down $1 million a year, Mr. and Ms. .01% might have lived in a somewhat larger house down the street. Now, theyr’e so far away you need Google Earth to find their estate.

Reeves seems to be deliberately fudging over the real gaps in income (and wealth, which he mentions not at all). That’s too bad because his point about the upper-middle class is not about inequality – their economic distance from the middle. It’s about mobility. In their effort to ensure a better, or at least equal, economic future for their children, they are making class boundaries more rigid. In effect, they are building a wall – sometimes, as with gated communities, a literal wall – to keep their families in and others out. Fewer and fewer of those coming from less affluent will be able to get in. 

Making the Facts Not Matter

June 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People get a clearer picture if you tell them what someone or something is rather than telling them what it isn’t. I’ve said that a few times in this blog (here, for example) in connection with writing. But it’s something that Donald Trump seems to know instinctively.  Here are two True/False items.

True or False: Donald Trump is president of the United States.
True or False: Donald Trump is not president of the United States.

Regardless of what you wanted the answer to be, the second statement took you a fraction of a second longer to get. Positive statements are clearer and more quickly understood .

The same principle applies in political combat as well. When the news or opponents point out that Trump is lying or that he’s done something worse, Trump doesn’t spend much time denying. He prefers to go on the attack, making counter accusations. Or he makes positive claims about himself. It doesn’t matter that these accusations and claims are without a basis in reality.*

The front pages of New York’s tabloids the day after James Comey appeared before a Senate committee illustrate the strategy of Trump and his supporters both in the Senate and at the New York Post.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The Daily News lists the Trump lies suggested by Comey’s testimony. (For some reason, the News omitted Trump’s statements about Comey and the FBI, statements that Comey said were “lies plain and simple.”)

The Post puts “liar” in quotes, highlights Republican criticisms of Comey, Loretta Lynch, the Clintons, and the New York Times, and quotes the Trump camp’s curiously sunny view of the testimony.

Trump did not respond to the Daily News headline. He did not say, “I am not a liar.”** As we’ve learned from Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” that kind of denial turns the spotlight on precisely the question the speaker wants the public to ignore. That denial would link “Trump” with “liar” just as surely as Nixon’s denial linked his own name with “crook.”
If you can get people to make that association – person and trait – even though they may not be fully convinced that it’s true, you’ve gained a lot of ground. Trump senses this. It’s the basis of his name-calling strategy: Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco repeated endlessly. We can already see where Trump is going in the Comey matter. If he hasn’t been tweeting it out yet, it’s probably because he can’t decide between “Leakin’ Comey” or “Leaker Comey.” If Trump can get people to think that Comey is a bad guy – a leaker – they will more easily ignore whatever factual information Comey provides.

The larger point is that, at least in the short run and maybe longer, the facts are less important than overall image. Once we have a mental image of someone or something, we will filter the facts in a way that keeps that picture intact. If Trump can convince his followers (and perhaps others) that the mainstream media is “fake news,” they can more easily discount or ignore any facts reported by CNN, NBC, USA Today.


* Last week, Trump said “Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it’s doing very well.” In fact, there was no tax bill. His administration had not sent a bill to Congress. He also issued a tweet blaming Democrats for the large number of unfilled positions in his administration. But as Politico pointed out, “The Trump administration has formally nominated just 63 candidates – 39 of which have been approved – for 559 key positions that require Senate confirmation.”

*The next day, Trump did deny that he had said some of the things that Comey reported, but more important he said that he would testify under oath. (Don’t hold your breath. Trump has also said that he’d release his taxes, remember?  Anyway, the Congressional committees where Trump would testify are controlled by Republicans. Would they call Trump in to testify under oath when Democrats as well can ask questions?)